By Dave Tomczak

MUSKEGON – Facing an opponent they already beat earlier in the season should have made the Muskegon Big Reds’ Division 3 playoff opener a bit easier.

It did not.

The host Big Reds built a large lead like everyone expected, but then had to hang on for a 42-35 victory over a determined East Grand Rapids squad at Hackley Stadium on Friday.

A huge Northern turnover late in the game helped Muskegon escape with the win.

“I’m so proud of our kids,” said Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield, whose team beat East Grand Rapids by 28 points in the regular season. “When you are in a game like this, it makes us closer and makes us tougher. Our kids are so resilient.”

Muskegon quarterback Cameron Martinez fights for yards against the East Grand Rapids defense. Photo/Michael Banka

The Big Reds improved to 10-0 on the season and advance to face Grand Rapids Christian next week in the district finals. Christian defeated Grand Rapids Northview 28-21 on Friday.

Leading 42-20 with only 10:42 left in the game, Muskegon watched the Pioneers score twice in a span of 2:17 to cut the lead to 42-35 with 8:25 remaining.

East Grand Rapids got the ball with 4:34 left and began a drive to tie the game, moving down to the Big Reds’ 25 with 2:43 left.

But Pioneers back John Shelton, who had 23 yards on the drive, coughed up the ball fighting for more yardage, and Muskegon’s Darin Bridgeford recovered.

“It was a heck of a football game and we knew it would be like this,” said Muskegon quarterback Cameron Martinez. “Playing a team like this – as good as they are – only helps us moving forward.”

The Big Reds struck early when Demario Robinson returned the opening kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown, and the PAT gave Muskegon a 7-0 lead just 13 seconds into the game.

Four minutes later, Robinson had an 80-yard touchdown run called back on a penalty. But Muskegon regrouped and four plays later Jeremiah Lockhart scored from seven yards out, and the home team led 14-0 after one quarter.

East Grand Rapids, which didn’t have a first down in the first quarter, got a golden opportunity at the start of the second when Big Red punter Carlos Hernandez-Sias dropped a low snap and tried to scramble for a first down, only to be stopped nine yards short.

Jeremiah Lockhart breaks free on the rush for Muskegon. Photo/Leo Valdez

The Pioneers scored a play later when Shelton rumbled 30 yards for a touchdown that cut the lead to 14-7 with 10:04 left in the second quarter.

Lockhart scored from five yards out with 2:59 left in the half to give the Big Reds a 21-7 lead. But EGR responded quickly when quarterback Jalen Broussard scored on a 55-yard run just 37 seconds later to cut the lead to 21-14.

Martinez found Robinson with a 34-yard touchdown pass with seven left in the half, and the Big Reds were up 28-14 at the break.

“It’s crazy, we practice that two-minute drill every Thursday,” Fairfield said. “We practice that and the kids executed it, and Demario made a heck of a catch. That was huge.”

Muskegon increased its lead to 35-14 on its first drive of the third quarter, going 80 yards in nine plays, including a seven-yard TD run by Martinez.

But Broussard, who had not completed a pass in the game, found Josh Weiss on 4th-and-8 with a 32-yard touchdown pass, cutting Muskegon’s lead to 35-20 after the PAT went wide.

The ensuing drive for the Big Reds led into the fourth quarter, and resulted in a 21-yard TD run from Robinson, putting Muskegon up 42-20 with 10:42 left in the game.

But again East Grand Rapids responded, with Broussard scoring on a 76-yard run less than a minute later. He then hit Griffen Caul with a two-point conversion pass to cut the lead to 42-28 with 9:46 remaining.

The Pioneers than executed a perfect onside kick. The ball bounced up and over the Big Reds’ front row into the open grass, where Nate Milanowski jumped on it.

After a pass interference call got EGR to the 12-yard line, the Pioneers faced a 4th-and-12 from the 14. Broussard tucked the ball and scrambled around the right end to the end zone, and the lead was down to 42-35 with 8:25 left to play.

The Pioneers did not go for the onside kick this time, leaving it up to their defense, which forced Muskegon to punt with 4:34 remaining.

East Grand Rapids drove 34 yards to the Big Reds 25, before Shelton lost the fumble with 2:43 left.

Muskegon chewed up the rest of the clock, with Martinez sealing the deal with a 25-yard run with 1:14 left.

“I was really pleased with our offense,” Fairfield said. “But we gave up some big plays. If we get a few more stops on those big plays, we are better off.”

Muskegon finished with 513 total yards, with Martinez rushing for 250 yards on 33 carries. He was also 2-for-3 passing for 81 yards.

Robinson had two receptions for 81 yards and rushed for 100 yards on 11 carries, and Lockhart finished with 12 carries for 80 yards.

Lamarion Sherrill led the Big Red defense with nine tackles.